Twisted and hilarious, poem about Proust, read by poet. Who could ask for anything more?
[Originally appeared in Issue 125, Winter 1992, of The Paris Review.]
“Silliness is the soul’s sweetmeat.”
Proust in Bed
– J. D. McClatchey
Through the peephole he could see a boy
Playing patience on the huge crimson sofa.
There was the turkey, the second-best
Chairs, the old chipped washstand, all his dead parents’
Things donated months ago
“To make an unfortunate
Crowd happy” at the Hôtel
Marigny, Albert’s brothel,
Warehouse of desires
And useless fictions-
For one of which he turned to Albert
And nodded, he’d have that one at cards, the soon-
To-be footman or fancy butcher.
He’d rehearsed his questions in the corridor.
Did you kill an animal
Today? An ox? Did it bleed?
Did you touch the blood? Show me
Your hands, let me see how you . . .
(Judgment Day angel
Here to separate
The Good from the Bad, to weigh the soul . . .
Soon enough you’ll fall from grace and be nicknamed
Pamela the Enchantress or Tool
Of the Trade. Silliness is the soul’s sweetmeat.)
One after another now,
Doors closed on men in bed with
The past, it was three flights to
His room, the bedroom at last,
The goal obtained and
So a starting-point
For the next forbidden fruit-the taste
Of apricots and ripe gruyère is on the hand
He licks-the next wide-open mouth
To slip his tongue into like a communion
Wafer. The consolation
Of martyrs is that the God
For whom they suffer will see
Their wounds, their wildernesses.
He’s pulled a fresh sheet
Up over himself,
As if waiting for his goodnight kiss
While the naked boy performs what he once did
For himself. It’s only suffering
Can make us all more than brutes, the way that boy
Suffers the silvery thread
To be spun inside himself,
The snail-track left on lilac,
Its lustrous mirror-writing,
Laws drawn through our lives
Like a mother’s hand through her son’s hair . . .
But again nothing comes of it. The signal
Must be given, the small bedside bell.
He needs his parents to engender himself,
To worship his own body
As he watches them adore
Each other’s. The two cages
Are brought in like the holy
The boy unveils them.
The votive gaslights seem to flicker.
Her dying words were “What have you done to me?”
In each cage a rat, and each rat starved
For three days, each rat furiously circling
The pain of its own hunger.
Side by side the two cages
Are placed on the bed, the foot
Of the bed, right on the sheet
Where he can see them
Down the length of his
Body, helpless now as it waits there.
The rats’ angry squealing sounds so far away.
He looks up at his mother-touches
Himself-at the photograph on the dresser,
His mother in her choker
And her heavy silver frame.
The tiny wire-mesh trap doors
Slide open. At once the rats
Leap at each other,
Claws, teeth, the little
Shrieks, the flesh torn, torn desperately,
Blood spurting out everywhere, hair matted, eyes
Blinded with blood. Whichever stops
To eat is further torn. The half-eaten rat
Left alive in the silver
Cage the boy-he keeps touching
Himself-will stick over and
Over with a long hatpin.
Between his fingers
He holds the pearl drop.
She leans down over his bed, her veil
Half-lifted, the scent of lilac on her glove.
His father hates her coming to him
Like this, hates her kissing him at night like this.